The Igala Alphabet

P.A. Ogundipe, C.E. Eckersley and M. Macaulay, co-authors of Brighter Grammar Book 1 (1983), define grammar as ‘the art of putting words in the right places.’ Igala language is richly-structured; and it is spoken with relish and a sense of national pride,  In spite of its verbal fluency and poetry, the language is yet to be sufficiently described, as evidenced by the conspicuous absence of an effective Igala equivalent for the English word, ‘grammar,’ hence, the adoption of ‘ìgìrámà.’  

Igala Alphabet

The Igala alphabet has a total of thirty-one (31) letters, composed as follows:

a             b             ch              d              e               ẹ

f              g             gb              gw            h               i

j              k              kp             kw             l              m

n            ny            ñm            ñw             o              ọ

p             ñ               r                t               u              w

Out of the 31 letters, (Àmulú-ùkọ̀là (Seeds of speech), twenty-four (24) are consonants(Àmikélí-ùkọ̀là); while seven (7) are vowels (Àmomi-ùkọ̀là),namely:

                                          a  e ẹ  i  o  ọ u.


At the centre of a language’s grammar are words (ọ̀là); and, at the heart of every word that is vocalised is a vowel (ómi-ọ̀là). Vowels transform to varieties  of tones and give life  to the words we pronounce. In Igala and hundreds of other Nigerian languages, tone or voice pitch (ùkomù) gives words their meanings; that is why they are called tonal languages. 


In Igala grammar, the seven vowels discussed above often change their tones along High, Mid, Low (or reversed) levels of pitch. Sometimes, the changes are influenced by the time of a specific action taken either in the past, present or future. Consider the following examples of tone change in sentences:

Let us examine the movement of the ‘ẹ’ sound in the sentences below:                                                                                        

(a)   Ẹ̀ lìyá ọ̀nálẹ́. Ẹ̀ fu ñwu jẹ. Ẹ̀ mú ólu du. You came; yesterday. You ate something. You slept off.                                             

(b)   Ẹ́ rēwā n̄i lẹẹDo you not remember?                                                                                                                         

In the first three sentences in (a), the ‘ẹ’ sound starts on a Low tone in both pronouns ‘Ẹ̀,’ (you singular). Then, it glides to a repeated Mid and drops to another Low tone.  In the second sentence at (b), the ‘ẹ’ starts on a High tone and ends on a repeated Mid tone. It is a mix of these (and other) tones that drive the function of words in sentences.

Changing Tones in Vowels 

Each of the seven vowels discussed below is explained with examples of their respective sounds or tones, including High, Mid and Low

  1. THE VOWEL ‘A’

      In English language, ‘a,’ is pronounced /ay/, as in ‘say,’ ‘day,’ ‘may.’ However, in Igala, the phonemic unit (tiny sound) is                        pronounced / a: /.  Try not to confuse one for the other.  The three instances of its change of voice pitch are:

     (i)  High tone (  ́). E.g. ábíá (dog);  álá (sheep); ájá (market).

     (ii) Mid tone (  ): E.g. gba (to read); fa (to sharpen); ka (to go sour); ta (to sting).

     (iii) Low tone (  ̀). E.g.  fà (to crawl); gbà (to take); mà (to know).

  1. THE VOWEL ‘E’

        Pronounced /é/, this sound occurs at three tonal levels, namely:

      (i)    High tone (  ́). E.g. wé (to stop; égbé (grass); kékélé (to be small).

     (ii)  Mid tone (  ). E.g. Eee (Yes, okay); awa  (hello); kpologodoo  (to be empty).

     (iii)  Low tone (  ̀) E.g. lè (went); dè (to guard); yègèyègè (to be scanty);  etc.

   3.  THE VOWEL ‘E

       The sound ‘ẹ,’ pronounced /ɛ/, also occurs at three tonal levels:

       (i) High tone (  ́). E.g.  jẹ́  (to accept); fẹ́ (to be clean); kpẹ́ (to share).

       (ii) Mid tone (  ). E.g.  ẹ, wẹ  (you (singular pronoun);   jẹ (to eat).

       (iii) Low tone (  ̀). E.g. dẹ̀ (to shine); gbẹ̀ (to be great); gwẹ̀ (to wash).


      The sound ‘i,’ pronounced /i:/, may be easily confused with the English ‘e’ (as in ‘bee,’ ‘see,’ ‘free,’ etc.  Its three levels of change            are:

       (i)    High tone (  ́). E.g. mí (to rest); lí (to see); hí (to weave); nyí (to create).

      (ii)   Mid tone (  ). E.g. fii (distantly); kiili (completely); kpiligidii (fiercely)

      (iii)  Low tone (  ̀). E.g. hì (to cook);  jì (to tie/bury); mì (to swallow); etc.

  1. THE VOWEL ‘O’

       Pronounced /o/, this tone frequents the domains of the three basic tones:

       (i)   High tone (  ́). E.g. óbó (soup);  ógbó (old age);  óló (poison);  ólóló (too much);

       (ii)   Mid tone (  ). (Here, do you remember our Empty space sign?). E.g. Ooo (Okay; alright, I agree, affirmative). E.g. Ooo, ú gbọ́.                (Alright, I have heard).

      (iii) Low tone (  ̀). E.g. òdò (yellow); ògòdò (to be watery instead of being solid); òkpò (fright); òtò (a large gourd water);  òyò                (shooting star).

  1. THE VOWEL, ‘Ọ’

       Pronounced /ɔ/, this tone functions mostly at three levels:

       (i)   High tone (  ́). E.g. ọ́dọ́ (year); Ọ́jọ́ (God); ọ́lọ́ (deformity);  ọ́kọ́ (money); ọ́rọ́ (flesh); ọ́wọ́ (hand), etc.

      (ii)   Mid tone (  )nọ (to stiffen); rọ (to roast); tọ (to leap); wọ (to pull out); gbọọlọ (to be long). (Also kọọlọ); etc.

     (iii)  Low tone (  ̀). E.g. yọ̀ (to be cheerful); kọ̀ (to refuse); nyọ̀ (to be good); etc.

  1. THE VOWEL, ‘U’

       Pronounced /u/, this vowel sound functions at three tonal levels:

      (i) High tone (  ́). E.g. tú (to untie); gwú (to pound);     kwú (to die); mú (to arrest); úlú (seed).

      (ii)  Mid tone (   ). E.g. du (to take); lu (to extinguish);  kwu (to slaughter); etc.

      (iii) Low tone (  ̀). E.g. dù  (to defeat); fù (to grow); gwù (to climb); lù (to smell).

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